Currently, Oolong teas, covering the wide spectrum of part-fermented teas on a scale ranging from ca. 10-85% degree of fermentation, are increasingly gaining popularity in the west. As for the origins of the part- or semi-fermented processing method, as well as the term “Oolong” itself (Chinese, also “Wu-Long”, or “Wu-Liong”), there are plenty of stories, some being mere legends or tales, others referring to historical events. For the scope of this article, let’s save the tales for once and focus on evident history, as well as on the way Oolong tea production has spread from its origins in China’s Fujian province to Taiwan and other south east Asian and other countries worldwide.
In ancient China, reaching back more than 1000 years in history, tea was considered a precious good. One of the most famous places for tea in the China of that time, and until today, was Fujian province, and there the Wuji (Phoenix) mountains, where Beiyuan (Dragon and Phoenix) tea gained a name as a tribute tea during the Song dynasty (960-1276).
Black Dragon Tea
It is said that Oolong (Black Dragon) tea eventually, at the times of the Ming dynasty in the 17th century, emerged from this Dragon and Phoenix tea. However, there are other historical roots of tea processing methods involving part-fermentation, such as the origin of the Iron Goddess (Ti Guan Yin) Oolong tea in another part of Fujian province, Anxi County. (More info)
From Wuji to Alishan
Whether by monks, cultural scholars/travelers, or merchants, tea plants were brought first to Taiwan in the beginning of the 19th century, where they proofed to be growing just nicely in mountain regions such as the Alishan. While those teas were initially brought back to mainland China for processing, Taiwan soon found ways to do the processing right on the spot, apparently with the involvement of some Western key figures such as the British John Dodd as an initiator, as well as some Chinese experts brought in from Fujian as professional mentors.
Oolong Tea Development in Taiwan
While tea cultivation and Oolong tea processing spread across Taiwan very soon, e.g. to places such as Nantou province (Dong Ding mountain), the country should soon coin its own distinguished style of Oolong teas, which should become known as “Formosa” Oolong Teas. Taiwanese Pouchong (low-fermented) Oolong teas, Oriental Beauty Oolong tea, Dong Ding Oolong tea and also Ti Guan Yin Oolong teas developed their own character and name in the world of tea starting from the second half of the 19th century.
Another step in Taiwan’s claim to fame regarding Oolong tea development has its roots in Taiwan’s Oolong Tea Development Project, which started its work in the second half of the 20th century and focused on the breading of special Oolong tea cultivars with optimized features such as high yield, better pest-resistance and greater altitude tolerance.
From Taiwan to the World
The results of this development work soon became an export good of Taiwan. Today, we find Taiwanese Oolong tea cultivars having been exported to and being cultivated in a range of south East Asian countries, e.g., most successfully in north Thailand, and I strongly believe that Taiwanese Oolong tea cultivars (and know-how) are most prone to be exported to other non-Asian countries, too, where this should not yet be the case already.
While in black and green tea, available options might be more or less exhaustively known by now, Oolong tea still offers a huge potential, whose exploration and exploitation are still just in the beginning. I personally believe that Oolong teas as a segment in the world of tea will establish besides green and black teas with at least similar weight in the long run, if not due to the wider spectrum of possibilities in cultivation and processing methods outrace those traditional two segments with time.
This Tea Is Bugging Me or The Secret of Oriental Beauty Oolong
What is High Mountain Oolong?
Tea Review: English Tea Store’s Formosa Oolong
Some Popular Taiwanese Oolong Cultivars
The Mystery of Milk Oolong
Reading Tea Leaves — Oolong Teas
See more of Thomas Kasper’s articles here.
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